Dan Terkla

title.none: Lewis, The Rhetoric of Power in the Bayeaux Tapestry (Terkla)

identifier.other: baj9928.9908.005 99.08.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dan Terkla, Illinois Wesleyan University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Lewis, Suzanne. The Rhetoric of Power in the Bayeaux Tapestry. Cambridge Studies in New Art History and Criticism. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. xv, 167. $50.00. ISBN: 0-521-63238-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.08.05

Lewis, Suzanne. The Rhetoric of Power in the Bayeaux Tapestry. Cambridge Studies in New Art History and Criticism. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. xv, 167. $50.00. ISBN: 0-521-63238-3.

Reviewed by:

Dan Terkla
Illinois Wesleyan University

In the preface to her study of the much-discussed Bayeux Tapestry, Suzanne Lewis, professor of art history at Stanford University, wonders, "[W]hy another book on the Bayeux Tapestry?" (xiii). She confidently responds that she has "something new to say" (xiii) and quickly invokes the major recent studies of this important artwork. Although she does not situate her work in that context beyond invoking names, Professor Lewis states that she has "no quarrel with . . . Michael Parisse (1983), David Wilson (1985), David Bernstein (1986), J. Bard McNulty (1989), or Wolfgang Grape (1993)" (xiii). Acknowledging that The Rhetoric of Power "is built upon [this] thick foundation of extant work" (xiii), she offers the following as its theoretical approach and seemingly novel thesis: "By focusing on the art of narrative, particularly within the framework of recent film theory, I want to show how history is not reflected in images but produced by them. The pictorial narrative of the Bayeux Tapestry presents not so much an illusion of reality but reality itself" (xiii). In other words, and if I understand correctly, this "elitist work" (xiv) presents its learned audience with a biased account, with "reality" as its designer portrayed it, of events leading up to and including the Norman Conquest of England in 1066-not with a journalistic recounting of historical events. Lewis, then, sets out to reveal how the designer conveyed this bias by examining "the work as problematic fiction, shot through with inconsistencies and ruptures" (xiii-xiv).

Lewis' preface (xiii-xv) and "Introduction: Medieval Audience, Performance, and Display" (1-9) set out what looks like a cutting-edge itinerary. In the latter section, the reader finds implicit and explicit references to at least nine theoretical approaches: reader response (2), "poststructuralist . . . semiotics and narratology" (2), "Foucauldian analysis" (3), performance (5), perhaps New Critical (7), deconstruction (7), film (7) and genre (8). By focusing "our attention on the kind of close reading (deconstruction) [sic] of episodes demanded by the narrative itself" (7), Lewis claims to demonstrate that the Tapestry made "itself accessible to contemporary audiences by establishing the cultural resonance of its story within the framework of such well-known literary genres as epic, chronicle, and panegyric" (xiv). Following from the preface and introduction, then, the reader expects this theoretically eclectic framework consistently to support her argument that the Tapestry's "most powerful rhetoric lies in its silences and empty spaces" (xiv).[1] The Rhetoric of Power generally falls short of this mark, though, and becomes a conventional exercise in careful reading.[2]

Further complicating matters, Lewis wants to "create a sense of an embodied 'reader'" (xiv), through whom she can fill the Tapestry's silences. Although precisely what constitutes such a reader for her remains unclear, it seems that through this person Lewis hopes to flesh out a "culture savante" (xiv), composed of "clerical elites" (6) and "court audiences with residual Anglo-Saxon ties as well as strong Norman sympathies" (5). By trying to conjure such a reader (or "a sense" of one) and audience, by recreating an eleventh-century horizon of cultural and literary-historical expectations, and by discussing (dangerously) its designer's intentions (10, 21, 131, 133), Lewis aims to show that these readers produced the Tapestry's meanings and that their culture, in turn, fashioned their responses: "The Bayeux Tapestry's rhetoric of power was dependent not only upon the operation of a complex culturally coded apparatus, both verbal and visual, but also . . . upon the active engagement of its contemporary audiences as producers of meaning" (xiv).

With their all-inclusive theoretical references and lack of methodological clarity, the preface and introduction leave the reader less than certain about what will follow. In her introduction, Lewis attempts to outline her critical position and to situate the provenance of this "elaborate staging of visual propaganda" (7). Her "goal is not to add yet another interpretation of what the work means, but to explore the strategies and conventions that made meaning possible both then and now" (2). This is fine, welcome even, but the reader is again confused on the following page, where Lewis argues that "the Tapestry converts and distributes particular values and ends over a range of actors into a system of shared or consequential meaning" (3). Does this not suggest self- contradiction, suggest that the reader will walk away with some idea of what Lewis thinks that "meaning" is? Can Suzanne Lewis demonstrate how the Tapestry means without arguing what it means? Can she "recover medieval ways of seeing in the post-structuralist terms of semiotics and narratology" (2) without reading the signs of this narrative for meaning?

The critical approaches with which Lewis aligns herself are at times incompatible. How, for example, can one equate New Criticism with deconstruction? Lewis writes "we shall center our attention on the kind of close reading (deconstruction) of episodes and sequences demanded by the visual narrative itself" (7). Granted, deconstructionists read closely, but to different ends than new critics, whom "close reading" calls to mind. The Bayeux Tapestry does draw on a number of conventions, literary and artistic, and does respond well to some eclectic approaches. Therefore, Lewis' desire to address the Tapestry's "intertextuality and generic complexity" (13) by creating a hybrid analytical methodology is well-founded. Paradoxically, she produces the very problem she seems to want to forestall: "The theoretical framing of my analysis is not meant to stand as a barrier to the reader's understanding. Instead, its insights, particularly those developed from film theory, are enlisted to provide a more direct access to the ways in which the work both advertises and conceals its secrets" (7). Indeed, the fact that this "theoretical framing" gets set aside in later chapters confirms that it is more a "barrier," perhaps even to Lewis, than a "direct access."

Along with unclearly defined or described methodologies often comes obfuscating jargon, of which a declaration like the following stands as an example: "The visual discourse is structured as a sequence of carefully constructed spaces of narrative uncertainty, moments of critical displacement in which the viewer is asked or required to transfer partisan sentiments and convictions onto the protagonists by giving voice to their otherwise silent utterances" (38). Surely, there are clearer ways to express this and statements like, "The identity of the text is constantly challenged and even undermined by the subversive or centrifugal possibilities of multiple interpretation built into the consciously underdetermined visual discourse of the Bayeux Tapestry by its designer" (133). I think in these two instances Lewis means something like the lack of inscriptions in certain Tapestry scenes encourages the viewer to create that dialogue according to his or her Norman or Saxon bias. When the viewer has done this for the entire Tapestry, he or she will have created a personal text with a particular meaning. The distinct set of preconceptions a viewer brings to the Tapestry, combined with its lack of information in some instances, can lead to many interpretations. If I have this right, I wonder, following Lewis' opening question, how this is new in any way.

Still seeking clarity of purpose, which Lewis does not supply, ten pages into chapter two, "Narrative Strategies and Visible Signs" (30-73), the reader confronts what seems to be the study's main thesis. After quoting David Bernstein's observation that the Tapestry's designer "was a 'consummate master of double meanings,'" Lewis writes, "An important dimension of my present project is to explore how he achieved that effect and to what end" (39). This is the most "important dimension" of her study, follows from her desire "to show how history is . . . produced by [the images]" (xiii), and leads straight to her conclusion: "The work was designed with two almost mutually exclusive goals in mind: the Bayeux Tapestry both legitimizes Norman rule in England, particularly Odo's earldom in Kent, and at the same time retains the dignity and honor of an English king, however discredited, slain in battle" (131). Method and meaning.

I quoted Lewis above on the Tapestry's medieval audience and return to that assertion briefly to wonder about it and about her intended audience. She argues that the embroidery "was not a vehicle of popular culture but an elitist work addressed to a culture savante" (xiv). However, she later paraphrases John Fiske, who "has recently argued [that] all popular culture texts are relatively 'open,' in the sense that they are completed only by their readers or viewers who . . . give them meaning" (7). Since the Tapestry fits this category of openness for Lewis, one assumes that it, too, is one of Fiske's "popular culture texts." After all, if it "could well have accompanied the peripatetic earl-bishop Odo from castle to castle and from cathedral to cathedral on both sides of the Channel" (6), would it then not have been viewed by any and all of the vulgus who ventured into those conjectured venues? Does "a vehicle of popular culture" differ from a "popular culture text"? For whom, exactly, was the Tapestry embroidered?

The same conundrum faces those imagining the intended audience for The Rhetoric of Power. Its heavy theoretical front- loading suggests a reader like Lewis, but her anxiety about that front-loading hints at a student reader, or someone not schooled in theory. Her heavy reliance on referential, non- explanatory endnotes generally and for theoretical background particularly bespeaks a learned audience.[3] However, the absence of original language quotations suggests that the study is geared to those who cannot read or do not care to check the quotations against the originals. The Tapestry's inscriptions are rendered in Latin, with one puzzling exception (117), and translated (by Lewis?), which is helpful. This, too, though, pulls the reader up short. For instance, why is "(sinister)" given for "left" (107)? Does Lewis intend the French sinistre or the Latin sinistrum, following the paradigm she sets by citing and translating the Tapestry's Latin and by using phrases like "( gente subiecta)" (73)? If she intends to draw an iconological connection between "left" and "sinister," why italicize the latter?

Equally distracting is Lewis' use of italics. She has a confusing penchant for enclosing words, a hoard of words, in quotation marks, the purposes of which are not always clear. For instance, "text" (without quotation marks) appears to refer to the Latin inscriptions on the Tapestry and nothing more "[i]n this multidimensional work involving both image and text" (3). Yet, on the following pages, the Tapestry itself "is very much a text about other texts" (4-5). Then, in the first chapter, "The Problematics [Problems?] of Genre" (10-29), Lewis refers to the Tapestry as a "historical text" (12) before suggesting that "the designer of the Bayeux Tapestry stresses the narrative surface as a constructed text" (13). This is followed, in the same sentence, by "both the medieval and modern 'reader' become increasingly aware of its status as a literary genre and of the necessity of locating its 'text' within a larger literary context" (13). What constitutes a text here? Is it a Latin inscription? all the Latin inscriptions? the Tapestry itself? the Tapestry as "historical text"? the Tapestry as "literary genre"? Why and when does text become "text"? How do these manifestations of text differ from "the narrative 'text' of the Bayeux Tapestry" (131)? from it as "'performed text'" (133)? Defining or at least describing key terms-like "work" (xiii), "text" ( passim), "context" (5), "story" (12), "truth" (14), "reader" (13), "reality" (15), "literary history" (15), "history" (39), "reading" (51), "incompleteness" (131), "place" and "places" (132)-all of which Lewis encloses at times in quotation marks, would have helped clarify her intentions (irony, satire, erasure?), argument and critical stance.

Further confusion results from Lewis' use of some figures. Why does she not provide an image to illustrate the two important marginal birds whose behavior "signal[s] the destructive layer of the rivalry undermining the spectacle of allegiance" (104), a reference to Harold's divided feudal self? When re-citing "the episode in which Harold is offered the crown" (111), why not refer again to figure 35, which illustrates it, instead of sending the reader in search of that image by giving "(Fig. 33)"? The discussion of Harold's oath-swearing refers to figure 30, when it should send the reader to figure 31 (37). It also would have been nice to have an image to accompany Lewis' tantalizing description of the "distinctive Anglo-Saxon structure, termed a burgheat" (44). Why not print the section of figure 41 (122-23) that actually shows Eustace "raising the papal banner into the upper margin" (129), particularly since, according to Lewis, the scene "singles him out, along with Odo, as deserving rich rewards after 1066" (129)? These glitches are small, but they accrue, hindering the reader's progress, and suggesting the need for closer attention during the editing process, as does the following: "Contrasting with the duke's latent or potential glance directed toward the observer. Harold's profile is detached from the viewer and belongs to the body in action" (85).[4]

I suggested above that The Rhetoric of Power benefits from Lewis' close-reading skills, by which I meant her attention to visual details that leads to some productive assertions. When this study's critical machinery winds down and its attendant jargon and baffling quotation marks subside, the reader moves more swiftly and discovers a critic on firmer interpretive ground. Unfortunately, even in those sections where Lewis demonstrates a facility for interpreting images, she often missteps. We see this in chapter two, "Narrative Strategies and Visible Signs" (30-73), more so in chapter three, "Narrative Structures: The Unfolding of Discourse in Event Clusters" (74-115)--the heart of her study and nearly one-third of the whole--and to a lesser extent in chapter four, the last, "The Norman Conquest and Odo of Bayeux" (116-34). Lewis' ultimate assertion that this glorious embroidery presents its audiences with ambivalent messages is provocative, if fully untenable. She argues convincingly, as do most of her sources, for the Tapestry's legitimizing William and Odo's positions, but asserts less persuasively that it simultaneously throws a sop to the Saxons by illustrating Harold's "dignity and honor" (131). Indeed, on this score Lewis leaves her reader with a clear, essentially conventional picture of just how "discredited" (131) an image the designer created of Harold Godwinson--as Earl of Wessex and King of England.

Lewis' global conception of the Tapestry as, following Peter Haidu, a combination of "episodes . . . modular in form and serial in content" (51), sets the frame for her reading of what she calls its "visual discourse," which "moves from one heavily weighted major event to the next with a concentrated, relentless force" (51). Many will find her assertion that "minor episodes are expendable, since their primary function is to fill in details" (51) problematic, and, indeed, she quickly contradicts herself: "Within the paratactic structure of the fast cutaway, the viewer can never be certain that what might at first glance seem secondary will not turn out to function as a major foreshadowing" (52). This focus does enable her to turn her interpretive gaze to those conventionally important scenes; however, it restricts her to covering well-trodden ground and precludes her discovering new paths that a more inclusive reading of, say, its border images might have afforded.

In chapter two Lewis relies on contemporary chronicles to offer "partisan response[s]" and writes puzzlingly that "the spectator must choose either a Norman or English version" (34). If, as we have seen above, this multilevel work of art "is constantly challenged and even undermined by the subversive and centrifugal possibilities of multiple interpretations" (133), then how does the Tapestry limit the viewer to an either/or reading? Although stating that "the medieval viewer's choices have been documented" (34) by these chronicles is problematic, since they do not record viewers' reactions to the Tapestry, Lewis uses the records to good effect (34-38). She sets out potentially partisan interpretations by suggesting what, say, a Norman sympathizer might read into a particular "silence," which she sees "as a powerful ideological tool in the sociopolitics of the Middle Ages" (37).[5] Although she begins this section with the first of a number generalizations and absolutist statements about "medieval text[s]" (32),[6] Lewis uses the Tapestry's opening scene to make a solid point about how its audiences fill in dialogic gaps left by the designer, that "the designer exploited this space of narrative uncertainty as a rhetorical strategy to pull the viewer into an active, complicit role in the process of representation" (36).

Her section on "Changing Places" (40-46) offers intriguing observations, one of which centers on the anachronism of architectural representations on the Tapestry. Suggesting a subtle enculturation, Lewis notes that "the serial repetition of a single architectural type of fortified residence ^Ê [pulls] ^Ê the physical spaces of the Bayeux Tapestry into the post- Conquest world of feudal castles" (44). Lewis cleverly sees this as "a powerful colonizing strategy that situates the viewer within an inevitable future" (44). This notion of inevitability is key and accords with the received wisdom about the Tapestry's overall thrust. Still, it mitigates against Lewis' final statement about the embroidery designer's bipolar goal, while leading nicely into her assertion that "[t]he string of fables seems to leave options open at the beginning of the sequence, but then closes the English options off at the end, so that the biased but unsuspecting viewer has the illusion of making a choice, although no alternative [to the Norman position] is actually offered" (73).

Lewis' close-reading capabilities drive this point home in her third and fourth chapters, in which she scrutinizes images with a trained eye. Focusing on Harold's "ambiguous [ambivalent?] role as aggressor and victim" (80), she pulls quite a lot out of the images representing the Earl's appearance at "William's fortress at Rouen" (80). She notices that, even though "the earl of Wessex still holds his hawk" (80), a marker of authority and thus a provocative assertion of power, Harold's "role as hunter-predator is compromised" as "the visual target of pointing fingers and lowered lances" (80). One is never sure how far to push such observations, but noting that one of these weapons "seems to pull down the 'O' of his inscribed name" (80) is smart, since it illustrates Harold's loss of dignity and the fact that "he transgressed the laws of an alien land [at the very least] and suffered the consequences" (128).

As in her section of the Tapestry's fables (59-73) and throughout, Lewis synthesizes current thinking on key scenes. In the fourth chapter, she relies on David Bernstein's study to reiterate useful observations on the much-discussed one-in-the- eye scene. Acknowledging that "Harold's loss of sight could have been seen as tantamount to simultaneously declaring and punishing his sin of faithlessness or perjury" (128), she offers a concrete twist to interpretations of the episode: "it is more likely that the viewer is being asked to witness Harold suffering a legal Norman punishment inflicted on rebels and poachers in England after the Conquest" (128). She backs this up by referring to "the so-called Articles of William the Conqueror" (128) and links it to a more conventional reading of Harold's symbolic "third 'death' by castration" (128). She does not make the connection, but such observations implicitly support Lewis' ongoing enculturation theme--made so nicely in her reading of the recurring Norman architectural images--by tying a pro-Norman image of the emasculated and dying English king to Norman "sentences of blinding and castration" (129).

Sections and readings like these briefly recounted here--and they are legion--demonstrate conclusively that the Bayeux Tapestry asserts its designer and patron's Norman bias.[7] They do not, however, support a second and concurrent reading that establishes the "honor of an English king, however discredited" (131), regardless of how "worthy [an] opponent" (24) Harold became by rescuing Normans from the River Cousenon's quicksand. Indeed, it is difficult to see how the Tapestry supports a reading of him as both "larger-than-life epic hero" (90) for the Saxons and as "[d]evoid of honor and dignity" (105), given the weight of Lewis' evidence to the contrary.

Based upon such observations and the troubles outlined above-- troubles editorial, theoretical and argumentative--the reader is forced to conclude that the rewards and novel insights are too few to repay the effort required to work through Suzanne Lewis' The Rhetoric of Power in the Bayeux Tapestry.


[1] Lewis drops names but never elaborates on just how she draws upon various critics' work. For instance, she aligns herself with "poststructuralist . . . semiotics and narratology" (2) and her endnote unhelpfully tells the reader to "See Culler, Pursuit of Signs, pp. 37-9; Barthes, "Introduction," pp. 269-72; Bal and Bryson, "Semiotics and Art History," pp. 184-5 (135). Should the reader then try to reconstruct the foundation of Lewis' approach by searching out these references and cobbling together what seem to be the relevant parts?

[2] Curiously enough, the Bodleian Library's Martin Kauffmann noted much the same unfulfilled will to theory in his review of Lewis' Reading Images: "Yet in fact little of this is actually dependent on the theory which precedes it; the language of this book is revealingly inconsistent" (19) ["Death and the Text: Two Contrasting Approaches to Medieval Art," The Art Newspaper 7 (July/August 1996): 19].

[3] Again, Martin Kauffmann's comments are germane and apply also to Lewis' shorthand references. Writing about her "groupings of traditional scholarship" in Reading Images, Kauffmann notes, "But the groupings are established by this traditional scholarship are taken as read, so that readers coming to this book with this detailed knowledge may well be baffled" (19).

[4] Following a cursory examination of the index, similar mistakes appear. Under the "character" entry for Harold Godwinson, for instance, the reference to page 82 should be to pages 80-81, since there is no text on page 82, only figures 19 and 20.

[5] Curiously, Lewis wonders why "the strategy of silent voices" is "rarely acknowledged" (37), causing her reader to question whether, for instance, she has seen the mass of work on Heldris de Cornualle's Roman de Silence.

[6] See pp. 52, 54, 74, 77, 79-80 and 133.

[7] See pp. 50, 81, 88, 89, 99, 102, 104-05, 108, 110, 111, 113, 115, 116 and 125.